Friday, February 12, 2010

5 Days Until Spring Training: Joe DiMaggio

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Joe DiMaggio's given name was actually Guiseppe. He grew up in San Francisco where his father made a living as a fisherman, manning a boat that wasn't quite large enough for crabbing but was sufficiently sizable to make a living on during the 1920's in the rich waters of the San Francisco Bay. DiMaggio's father, also named Guiseppe, came from a long line of Sicilian fisherman as did the fathers of most of the boys Joe D. used to play baseball with on North Beach playground.

Naturally, the elder Guiseppe wanted all five of his sons to become fisherman, but he didn't understand that by immigrating to America, he had opened up their options far beyond anything they could have conceived back on Isola delle Femmine. They weren't consigned to the sea like he had been at their age. Only the two oldest DiMaggios became fisherman. The youngest three all went on to play Major League baseball.

Dom and Vince both had pretty decent careers. Each player over a decade and both brothers retired with OPS+ around 110. Not bad, but Joe was clearly head and shoulders above his kin.

Vince was actually the one who got Joe back into baseball after he briefly lost interest in his mid teens. Vince asked his manager with the San Francisco Seals to let his kid brother to fill in at shortstop for three games at the end of the 1932 season while the incumbent Augie Galan was barnstorming in Hawaii. In 1933, Joe officially became part of the team.

During his rookie season, just 18 years old, DiMaggio started the season on the bench. Eventually he took the place of a slumping right fielder and began his inexorable march to superstardom. Starting on May 27th, DiMaggio recorded a hit in 61 straight games, shattering the previous Pacific Coast League record. It was then he truly became hooked on baseball:
Baseball didn't really get into my blood until I knocked off that hitting streak. Getting a daily hit became more important to me than eating, drinking or sleeping. Overnight I became a personality.
DiMaggio had a unique minor league baseball experience. Instead of being drafted by an franchise and assigned to one of their teams thousands of miles from where he grew up, he played all of his minor league ball for his hometown Seals. He later explained:
I had the good luck to spend my entire minor league career in the Pacific Coast League, in which all travel and accommodations were first-class, and with my hometown team, the San Francisco Seals, at that. Playing on my hometown team meant when the club played its home stands I could live with my parents, occupy my own room.
The Yankees originally wanted to purchase DiMaggio at the beginning of the 1935 season but Charley Graham, owner of the Seals, drove a hard bargain. He agreed to give up Joltin' Joe, but only after he completed the '35 season in San Francisco. Additionally, the Yankees had to send three players to the Seals before the '35 season began. This made the Seals a heavy favorite in the PCL that year, and they took full advantage.

DiMaggio hit .398 with 100 extra base hits and 173 RBIs. The Seals captured their first Pacific Coast League title in 4 years and Joe was named League MVP. After the season ended, the Yankees sent $75,000 and completed the deal. DiMaggio made the long trip from California to Spring Training in St. Petersburg with fellow Italians and Bay Area natives Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti, the latter of whom was bought from the Seals in 1931.

DiMaggio's personality didn't seem fit for the Big Apple. The Daily News called him "timid" and referred to his as Dead Pan Joe when he first arrived. Later in his career Hank Greenberg noted that if DiMaggio said "hello" to you, that was a long conversation by his standards. He was hyped endlessly by the New York papers and billed as the "Babe Ruth's successor", but in terms of disposition, he was much more like Lou Gehrig than Ruth.

Joe hit .323/.352/.576 with 29 HRs and 125 RBIs in his first year in the Bronx, made the All-Star team and finished 8th in the MVP vote. Had there been a Rookie of the Year award then, he surely would have won it. His sophomore campaign was even better, with a line of .346/.412/.673 and a whopping 46 home runs despite hitting right handed in Yankee Stadium for half of his games.

Over the course of his career, DiMaggio his 148 homers in the Bronx compared to 213 on the road. Left-center field at Yankee Stadium was 460 feet away during his playing days and straight away center was 490. It was a short 281 feet down the line, but the 45 degrees directly ahead of DiMaggio ranged from 430 feed in left field to 406 in right. It suffices to say that the Yankee Clipper lost a fair amount of home runs to Death Valley.

If anything, the extra square footage in the Yankee outfield help Joltin' Joe hit for average. With more ground for the outfielders to cover, there were more places for DiMaggio's hits to fall. On May 14th, 1941, he began his legendary 56 game hitting streak which lasted until July 17th in Cleveland. That day, three great defensive plays - two by third baseman Ken Keltner and one by shortstop Lou Boudreau - kept Joltin' Joe hitless. Undeterred, DiMaggio hit safely in 16 straight games immediately, collecting a hit in 72 of 73.

That year, primarily on the strength of his hitting streak (and maybe aided by the fact that he only struck out 13 times in 621 PAs), the Yankee Clipper stole the MVP from Teddy Ballgame, who hit .406 and roundly trounced him in every other significant batting category, save for runs batted in.

From 1936-1942, DiMaggio hit .339/.403/.607 (159 OPS+), averaged 31 home runs and 133 RBIs and won two AL MVPs. He homered more often that he struck out and played excellent defense.

DiMaggio was known for his long strides that allowed him to cover wide swaths of Yankee Stadium's expansive center field. According to Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg, the only way to get a hit against the Yankees was "to hit 'em where Joe wasn't." He developed his nickname "The Yankee Clipper" because as he patrolled center field he looked as smooth and graceful as the popular 19th century clipper sailing ships known for their speed and ability to cut through wavy waters.

After 7 excellent seasons for the Yanks, DiMaggio went to war in 1943. Well, more correctly, the was drafted into the Army Air Force. He traded in his $43,750 salary from the Yanks for a $50/month wage from the Army, but he continued playing baseball. He became a part of the 7th AAF and was stationed in Santa Ana, California. Joe spent most of his time in the service as a physical education instructor and playing baseball on the Santa Ana team. By contrast, Ted Williams was a fighter pilot.

While his time in the Army was a relative walk in the park, his parents were not so lucky. Since they were Italian immigrants, they were classified as "enemy aliens" and forced to carry identification cards on them at all times. They were not allowed to go beyond five miles from their home with out a government-issued permit. DiMaggio's father was banned from fishing in San Francisco Bay, where he had made a living over the previous 30 years.

The Yankee Clipper lost three full seasons to WWII. When he returned to the Yankees, he was 31 years old and it took him a bit to regain him form, hitting only .290 in his first year back. He hit for a lower average and with less power in his final six seasons than he did in his first seven but still managed a 150 OPS+ over that span. He picked up his third and final MVP in 1947, nudging out Ted Williams by one point despite on-base and slugging percentages over 100 points lower than the Splendid Splinter's, not to mention significantly fewer homers, RBIs and runs scored. It probably helped that the Yanks made it to the World Series and the Sox finished 3rd in the AL.

Williams and DiMaggio were almost swapped for each other in 1949. Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Yankees GM Larry MacPhail verbally agreed to a trade, however it fell apart when McPhail balked at Yawkey asked for a young catcher by the name of Yogi Berra. It seemed at the time that the two principles of the trade were stuck in the wrong parks - the left handed Williams in Fenway and the righty DiMaggio in Yankee Stadium. However, they made out pretty well despite their inhospitable home parks. Berra, it turns out, would have been a much bigger loss for the Yanks because DiMaggio was done as a player only two seasons later.

Helped greatly by his hitting streak, DiMaggio became a central figure in American pop culture. Although he was an incredibly great player, his fame outpaced his talents. He was referenced in countless songs such as John Fogarty's Center Field, We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel and Mrs. Robinson by Simon and Garfunkel. He was mentioned on I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Hemingway even mentioned him in The Old Man and the Sea.

The Yankee Clipper accomplished an awful lot despite playing in only 13 seasons in the Big Leauges. He was a 9-time World Champion, 3-time AL MVP, 2 time batting champion, and a 13-time All-Star (the only player to be selected for the All-Star Game in every season he played). His career line was .325/.398/.579 BA and he tallied 361 HRs, 1537 RBI.

Joltin' Joe was a private man. He never seemed to be interested in the trappings of fame despite being one of the most famous people in the country for much of his life. He married Marilyn Monroe in 1954, of course, but the marriage lasted less than a year, due in part to Joe's jealousy and public nature of her character. They reunited seven years later and Joe asked her to marry him just four days before she died on August 5th, 1962. Joe had roses delivered to her grave three times a week for twenty years after she passed away. He never married again.

DiMaggio lived a full and long life which ended when he was 84 years old. He spend the last 100 days of his life in a hospital battling lung cancer and passed away on March 8th, 1999. The Yankees wore a black #5 patch on their uniforms to commemorate his life that season which culminated with a World Series victory over the Braves.

Mostly due to the length of his career, it took 3 ballots for DiMaggio to enter the Hall of Fame but he gained admittance to Cooperstown in 1955 and lived more than half of his life as a member of the Hall of Fame. He was to Yankees fans what Ruth was before him and Mantle and Jeter have been after: larger than life legends both on and off the field.

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